Redigging Our Fathers' Wells

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Genesis 26:17-25

Redigging Our Fathers’ Wells

Isaac departed from there and encamped in the valley of Gerar and settled there.  And Isaac dug again the wells of water that had been dug in the days of Abraham his father, which the Philistines had stopped after the death of Abraham.  And he gave them the names that his father had given them.  But when Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of spring water, the herdsmen of Gerar quarrelled with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying, “The water is ours.”  So he called the name of the well Esek, because they contended with him.  Then they dug another well, and they quarrelled over that also, so he called its name Sitnah.  And he moved from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it.  So he called its name Rehoboth, saying, “For now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”

From there he went up to Beersheba.  And the Lord appeared to him the same night and said, “I am the God of Abraham your father.  Fear not, for I am with you and will bless you and multiply your offspring for my servant Abraham’s sake.”  So he built an altar there and called upon the name of the Lord and pitched his tent there.  And there Isaac’s servants dug a well.[1]


saac was the ordinary son of a great father, and the ordinary father of a great son.  Though he lived longer than any other of the patriarchs, less is recorded of him than of any of those venerated luminaries who surround him in time.  His was a quiet, commonplace life, pedestrian and undistinguished in virtually every respect.  Throughout most of the chapters of Genesis in which he appears, he is a mere necessary backdrop to lend understanding to the account of someone else's life.  Only in Genesis 26 do we read of Isaac's actions, and even then, his life is more significant in likeness to the early years of his father, Abraham than for anything he may or may not have done.

The Sins Of The Fathers [26:1‑11] — The second of the Ten Commandments forbids worship of any idol.  The reason God gives for this prohibition is that, I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me [Exodus 20:5, 6].  Punishment for the sin of the fathers is usually taken to be some inevitable consequence of the father's sin, which is no doubt correct.  It is also possible that punishment for the father's sin may be that sin itself.  The children may repeat the parent's sin and suffer for it.  That was Isaac's case, and it may well be our case.

The noted Anglican divine, W. H. Griffith Thomas, outlines this chapter as though presenting a study of response to difficulties.  The following outline is provided by Canon Thomas.  Verses 1 through 5, according to this fine scholar, address the issue of Difficulty met by Divine GuidanceDifficulty met by Human Sin is his understanding of verses 6 through 11Verses 12 through 17 expresses Difficulty met by Divine BlessingDifficulty met by Human Patience is the theme of verses 18 through 22.  Finally, Griffith Thomas says verses 23 through 33 present the theme of Difficulty met by Divine Favour.[2]  Difficulty and the response of God and man is the theme according to Griffith Thomas.

 It is a good outline, and one which would no doubt prove beneficial to our understanding, I am certain.  I dissent from his outline in the initial aspect, however.  Listen carefully to the words of Genesis 26:1-5.  Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham.  And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines.  And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you.  Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father.  I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands.  And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”

God specifically instructed Isaac not to go down to Egypt in response to the famine then plaguing the land.  Appended to God's instruction is the longest iteration of God's promise to give the land of Palestine to the offspring of Isaac, and therefore to the descendants of Abraham.  Underscore one singular thought in your minds: God would not have commanded Isaac not to go to Egypt if that had not been where he was headed.  Isaac was guilty of forsaking the promised land God had reserved for Abraham's seed.  Isaac was guilty of desertion.

This is not a new sin to readers of Genesis.  Abraham twice deserted the land of Canaan, though God told him to stay put.  In Genesis 12:10‑20, he left for Egypt because there was a famine in the land, entering into one of the most sordid episodes in his life when he reached a spiritual low.  In Genesis 20:1‑13, he travelled to Gerar where he again distinguished himself through lack of faith.  In each instance, Abraham was led into ever-deeper sin, just as Isaac was to shortly be led into ever-deeper sin.

It is an extraordinary observation that we are frequently most prone to sin after great blessings.  Isaac had only received the rich promise of God that he would be progenitor of a great race.  By implication, he should have deduced that God was pledged to preserve him.  Yet, his fear of the peoples living in Gerar, where he was by divine permission rather than command, was greater than was his fear of God.  Instead of relying of God to protect him and to preserve him, he resorted to a stratagem of his own making, thus revealing an even greater lack of faith than was seen in his journey toward Egypt.  It is difficult to know if his sin was faithlessness or cowardice, both are related.  He was fearful; thus, he was faithless.  His lack of faith led him to lie.  Fearing that the Philistines would kill him and take his wife into the harem of the king of that region, he said of her when questioned by the men of that place that she was his sister [verse eight].  Where have we heard that before?

Twice, Abraham resorted to a similar device of lying to preserve his life.  The first time was in Egypt when he instructed Sarah to present herself as his sister rather than as his wife.  When he was about to enter Egypt, [Abram] said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’  Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”  When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful.  And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh.  And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.  And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels [Genesis 12:11‑16].

In the other instance, while sojourning in the same region of Gerar where Isaac now encamped according to our text, Abraham himself presented Sarah as his sister.  Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.”  And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah [Genesis 20:2].  In each instance, the Friend of God acted out of fear of the people of the land instead of exercising faith in the Lord.  Take special note of two explanations.  When he was about to enter Egypt, [Abram] said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’  Then they will kill me, but they will let you live.  Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”  [Genesis 12:11-13].  The other passage is that which is recorded in Genesis 20:11 where Abraham attempts to explain his actions.  Abraham said, “I did it because I thought, There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”

The father of the faithful revealed himself to be faithless in each of these instances.  Abraham feared for his life, judging his life more precious than his integrity.  In fear, he jeopardised his wife and slandered innocent people by judging them before they had opportunity to prove themselves.  Through fear he openly denied and disobeyed His God, thus giving opportunity for unbelievers to ridicule God.  The pagans surrounding him come off better than he does in each of these instances.  They demonstrated integrity, and, when confronted by God in each instance, they are quick to avoid even the appearance of evil.

Truly has the Lord spoken by Solomon:

The fear of man lays a snare,

but whoever trusts in the LORD is safe.

Proverbs 29:25

Before we condemn Abraham, we need to examine our own response to threats.  Do we trust God?  When pressure comes upon the church, do we first look to God?  Is it not rather that we endeavour  to resort to our own stratagems and devices in an attempt to make things right without any pain?  When threats come against our home life, do we react by trusting in the Lord?  Or do we think we can work matters out through our own efforts?  When our ability to earn an income is threatened, do we react with confidence that we belong to the Lord?  Or do we respond with fear?

My point is not that we should be unaware of the threats to life and welfare, but that we should rest confident in the knowledge that we serve a God who is too wise to make a mistake and too good to needlessly hurt us.  I call on God’s people to trust in the Lord, believing that He cares for you.

It is significant that it was not God who exposed Isaac's sinful actions.  Abraham's sin was exposed before the Egyptians when God inflicted them with plagues.  His sin was demonstrated to the Philistines when God directly intervened revealing Himself in a disquieting dream to Abimelech.  Isaac, however, betrayed himself.  When he had been there a long time, Abimelech looked down and saw Isaac caressing Rebekah, a most unbrotherly act!  If you are disobeying God, do not imagine that it is necessary for God to expose you.  He may.  But if He does not, eventually the world will find you out—you will reveal yourself.  When we disobey God, there is generally an unbeliever watching us out his window.

A Return To Our Roots [26:12‑25] — Exposed for his lack of faith and for his concomitant fraudulent character, Isaac lost moral stature in the eyes of Abimelech.  Don't you find it of some interest that despite his sin, God was blessing Isaac.  Notice verses 12 through 14.  Isaac sowed in that land and reaped in the same year a hundredfold.  The Lord blessed him, and the man became rich, and gained more and more until he became very wealthy.  He had possessions of flocks and herds and many servants, so that the Philistines envied him.

God's blessings, especially when it consists of material enrichment, is no indication of one’s spiritual status.  We do well to remember that truth.  In fact, in the text before us, God used His material blessings to induce Isaac to again do right.  Because Isaac was growing in wealth and in power, Abimelech grew jealous [verse 14b].  The Philistines used the excuse that they feared his increased power as a threat [verse 16], but it would seem that their primary reason for inviting him to leave was envy.  To assist Isaac in deciding to leave, the Philistines filled the wells that Abraham’s servants had dug in previous years.

Water was no doubt a precious commodity, and Isaac’s rapidly expanding herds would require increasing quantities of water.  That, in itself, helps explain the importance of the wells which appear from here on in this brief account of Isaac's life.  However, did you ever stop to ask yourself whether the Philistines wouldn't also benefit from the presence of those same wells?  If their main reason for stopping the wells was to injure Isaac, their actions were equally injurious to themselves.  At best, their actions were short-sighted.  At worst, their actions were self-defeating.

Though some commentators have focused on the importance of water in that pastoral climate, I am confident that we miss the point if we merely assign to the actions of the Philistines mere attempts to injure Isaac.  Bear in mind that a well served as a tacit sign of ownership.  If Isaac were permitted to dig a well, it would serve as a statement of his ownership of that particular area.  The Philistine actions, then, were a means of openly challenging his claim to the land in which they also lived.  In short, this was a dispute over ownership of the land, and not a mere effort to drive Isaac away.

When Isaac failed to accept their not so subtle invitation to leave the region, Abimelech openly commanded him to leave [verse 16].  One can imagine that this demand was backed up with the threat of armed coercion.  Isaac did move, though at first, he did not move very far, settling in the valley which opened into the Gerar region.  There, Isaac reopened one of Abraham's wells, only to find that his claim was contested by the Philistines [verses 17, 18].  He removed himself yet further from the Philistines, set his servants digging yet another well, and attempted to settle down only to see the well serve as the focus for yet another dispute with Philistine neighbours [verses 19‑21].  He moved yet again, dug another well, and found that finally he appeared to be far enough away from the Philistines to permit peace.  He named this well “Rehoboth”, which means room, indicating that he thought there was room in the land for himself as well as the Philistines [verse 22].

Only when he moved to Beersheba where Abraham had lived and been blessed, did he again experience the presence of the LORD.  For only the second time, as far as we are aware from the divine record, God appeared to Isaac, indicating His pleasure with obedience [verses 23, 24].  In Beersheba, Isaac built an altar to the LORD, called on the Name of the LORD, pitched his tent and had his servants dig a well.  He was home; he was where he was supposed to be at last.

Analyse Isaac's actions, comparing them to our own actions when we choose to sin.  Confronted by the world, all the while knowing that he was to live in Canaan and in Canaan he was to worship God, Isaac was forced to move through intervention of the world.  Even then, he moved reluctantly, giving every indication that he preferred this portion of the land identified with the world.  He seemed to think that a “little” separation was called for, instead of radical separation.  When that was demonstrated to be insufficient, he attempted “progressive” separation.  Finally, he seemed to imply that compromise was called for.  However, the presence of God could not be experienced until he was fully separated from the world and to God.

We are not much different.  Too often, it is not our ignorance of the will of God which is our undoing, but our reluctance to fully do the will of God.  We want to live close to the action, separating ourselves just a little bit from the world.  We don't want to appear radical in our condemnation of sin, so we stand off just a short distance.  We won't fully identify with sin, but we won't go so far as to be too removed.

We seem to justify our actions through confusing rescue from the flames with smelling like smoke.  Should we be rebuked or challenged by worldlings, we practise progressive separation.  We move a short distance, and wait to see if anyone objects to just a little bit of condemnation.  Throughout, we are attempting to discover how much compromise is acceptable to God and how much separation is acceptable to the world.  The issue for the Christian has nothing to do with our acceptance by the world, but it has everything to do with pleasing God.  There is no such thing as a “little bit of sin” and there is no such thing as a “little bit of compromise.”

What is required of God in order to get you home?  You may have run from serving Him—from fulfilling His will; you may even have experienced a measure of His blessing during your disobedience, but God has troubled your path.  Has it been by envy?  Has it been by conflict and assault?  Has it been through grief?  Through sickness?  Through pain?  These are not as you may have imagined a means of injury and grief.  These are from God.  They are His messengers.  What will it require for you to listen?


A Restoration Of The Presence Of God [26:26‑33] — Isaac learned a hard lesson that we are prone to forget: identification with the past—its victories and its glories—is worthless without God's power and presence.  Abimelech had no inclination to treat with Isaac so long as Isaac was merely another desert sheikh or Semitic suzerain.  He could order him about and enforce his will by dint of superior force.  Once Isaac was realigned with the Lord God, however, the equation was radically and irreversibly altered.  Then Abimelech was compelled to seek a treaty.

I want you to take careful note of a glorious truth which is too readily neglected.  Verse twenty‑nine presents a revealing observation by Abimelech of Isaac’s situation.  You are now the blessed of the LORD.  The statement is of interest for the purpose of the message precisely because Isaac was blessed by the LORD previously.  Take note of the latter portion of verse 12bThe LORD blessed him.

However, the previous blessing of the LORD resulted in the Philistines envying Isaac, though the material blessing of God did not cause them to fear him.  Now, walking in the presence of the LORD, the fear of the LORD settled on the very people which had previously despised him.  This is nothing less than a presaging of the observation of the wise man:

When a man's ways please the LORD,

he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.

Proverbs 16:7

One of the great observations of the early church was that which is recorded in Acts 5:13: None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem.  The presence of God in power among His holy people prevents thoughtless attempts at identification with those same holy people.  Dread of the Divine pervades the assembly of His people when He is present.  Tragically, there doesn't appear to be much to fear in most services—the wicked feel right at home except for being slightly bored.  No one plunges his hand into fire; but who fears ashes?


Applications and Observations from the Life of Isaac — I believe we will benefit from several applications suggested by the events in this period of Isaac's life.  The first application is a plea to remember that as was true in Isaac’s case, and as is also true for us, until God is pre-eminent, blessings will prove illusory.  Either God is everything in the Christian’s life, or God is nothing.  Too many Christians attempt to live as though the issue is God and…  There is no and!  The story of Isaac reveals that nothing is too trivial to merit God's guidance, nothing is too small for His grace and power.  His children are encouraged to learn to lean on Him for strength and hope.

A second application is the need for strength of character.  Serious peril seems always to attend the path of the children of the righteous.  Isaac did not need to pass through the same disciplines Abraham had been forced to pass through.  The result of his failure to pass through the same disciplines is that things were so easy that he did not realise the need for individuality of character.  In opening Abraham's wells, he was copying his father's actions without his father's success.  Instead of having a personal hold on God and duty, he was merely imitating what his father had done.  Always, danger attends the way of the child for whom life has been made too easy.

Jeremiah's observation is yet accurate:

It is good for a man that he bearthe yoke in his youth.

Lamentations 3:27

If I could make a plea for you who are now listening, it would be that you become men and women of character.  It is Father’s Day, and I suggest that our culture is dying in no small measure for a failure of fathers to be models for their children.  Too many of us grew to manhood without the growth of character mandated by the Christian Faith.  Without question, our church will never grow without men and women of character.  Without question, our families will disintegrate if we fail to provide a model of Christian character for our children.

A third application is the importance of separation from the world.  So long as Isaac was in or near Gerar, he could not experience much peace.  He was envied, thwarted and opposed by the Philistines.  Not only did he lack peace, but also he was wanting in power both with God and with man.  Only when he had definitely turned his back on the world of the Philistines and returned to the God of His father did he find peace and power.

Similarly, we may expect but few demonstrations of power in our lives until we separate from the world.  You wonder why you have never led a soul to Christ?  Perhaps the answer lies in the lack of separation from the world about you.  You question why your children seem to ignore you and your pleas for righteous conduct.  Perhaps the answer for their ignorance lies within your failure to separate from the world.  Why are so many of our prayers left unanswered?  Is it because we try to live so as not to draw attention of ourselves from those identified with this perishing world?

I have attempted to tell the story as recorded in the Word, allowing the incidents to speak for themselves.  Yet, I must not permit us to miss these observations.  A preliminary observation is that strength is demonstrated through meekness.  Meekness is not greatly valued by the inhabitants of this fallen world.  Perhaps meekness is too often confused with weakness.  I must remind you that meekness is nothing less than strength under control.  Isaac may not have been all we could wish in terms of character, but he was strong.  His strength was obvious to the Philistines [vv. 16, 28b, 29]. 

Yet, despite his strength, Isaac accepted Abimelech's rebuke and his servants yielded to the Philistines rather than contest ownership of the wells.  Meekness means the self‑sacrifice of our own desires and interests.  In this spirit of gentleness is the secret of truest character and finest victory over self and others.  In meekness is the death of egotism and the strengthening of personal character.

I make a second observation concerning Isaac's life after he had returned to Beersheba.  We know that Isaac died at the age of one hundred eighty [Genesis 35:28].  Moreover, he was sixty when Esau and Jacob were born [Genesis 25:26].  We also know that Isaac married at age forty [Genesis 25:20].  By a simple calculation, we are able to calculate that he remained in Canaan for eighty years.  Without inheriting so much as a handful of the dirt of that land which was promised, Isaac waited on God.

You may find it hard to admire Isaac since he appears bland and passive, but he did demonstrate confidence toward God.  He believed God’s promise and waited on God.  Even if his own eyes did not see fulfilment of the promise, he was confident in God.  Underscore this truth: faith is revealed through patience?

In spite of the sins of Isaac recorded in Genesis twenty‑six, nowhere else in the Bible do we find God rehearsing these sins or suggesting that Isaac was somehow disqualified from the Messianic lineage because of his sins.  On the contrary, God praises Isaac and declares that he is not ashamed to be called his God.

Listen to Hebrews 11:8-16.  By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance.  And he went out, not knowing where he was going.  By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.  By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.  Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.  These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

Note that final verse.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.  Among the patriarchs whom God commends in this Hebrews passage is Isaac.  The reason God commends Isaac is in response to his patience.  Patience is nothing less than practical confidence.  Patience toward God is trust that God will keep His promise.  There is a valuable lesson for each of us in this observation.  God keeps His promises and we are responsible to wait patiently on the Lord.  Though my God works in slow motion, He does work!

Abraham was also a sinful man, and we read of his sin throughout this same book.  Yet, Abraham is commended by God in Genesis 26:5.  Note the commendation of God.  Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws.  When God reviews Isaac's life in Hebrews 11, we see Him focusing on his faith.  Underscore in your mind this vital truth: God focused on Isaac’s faith.  Faith and obedience are inseparable.  A faithful individual is one who is obedient to God.  An obedient individual is one who looks to God in faith.  To say that God blesses faith is the same as saying that God blesses obedience.  In the same way, we each fail and certainly disappoint God many times.  Yet, God is not the one to hold past sins against us.  He remembers the victories and tells us this that we might press on joyously to even greater victory.

As individuals, may I press on each hearer the import of this message?  We walk by faith and not by sight.  We are responsible as those who name the Name to Christ to obey His Word.  Perhaps you remember the pointed words of the Master recorded in John 14:21-24.  “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.  And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”  Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?”  Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.  And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.”

Worship the Lord.  Walk with Him.  Honour Him.  Teach your family about Him.  Reveal His presence through a godly life.  Refuse to surrender to your own evil desires.  This is nothing less than a practical demonstration of our faith.  Jesus had earlier said to His disciples, If you love Me, you will keep My commandments [John 14:15].  Truth compels me to say that those who refuse to keep His commandments know nothing of His love.  They reveal through their disobedience that they are not His people, for Jesus has spoken.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love [John 15:10].

The words I have spoken to you as individuals, I address to us as a congregation.  We are responsible to redig our fathers’ wells.  We must redig the closed wells of commitment to Christ and to His church.  We must redig the closed wells of holiness of life and godliness of our personal walk.  We must redig the closed wells of mutual love and corporate accountability.  Until we have done this, we need not expect to witness the presence of God’s rich blessings.  Amen.


[1] The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2001.

[2] W. H. Griffith Thomas, Genesis: A Devotional Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1946) 236-245

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